The DUFF – Film Review

It feels like it could be a film from the late 90s. Surely every American (and for that matter non-American) teenager knows what a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) is now days.

There are plenty of films they could make with more modern acronyms like BAE (before anyone else) – a teen friendship movie starring Maisie Williams, Shailene Woodley, Chloe Grace Moretz and a pair of used overalls; OTP (one true pairing) – a romantic comedy where Justin Bieber runs a zoo; TBT (throwback Thursday) – a body swap movie with Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, where no one notices the difference; or YOLO (you only live once) – a road trip where Jennifer Love Hewitt and Molly Ringwald travel the world doing extreme sports.

The DUFF feels like a massive attempt to modernise Mean Girls. It ends up being a mere template of the teen movie genre with all the usual archetypes including Ken Jeong as the mild mannered mentor, a bunch of stick thin young models as the school bullies and chiselled-jawed Robbie Amell as the school jock – despite the opening narration stating “for generations of high-schoolers you could only be a jock, a geek, a princess, a bully or a basket-case; but times have changed”. Apparently the producers didn’t get their own memo.

The only markers suggesting it is any different from older teen movies is the heavy handed use of handheld mobile devices, social media and Duckface – a phrase Allison Janney uses in this film, proving she is the most hip character in a film that already looks dated.

Mae Whitman (a wonderful comedic actress from Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and television series Parenthood) stars in the title role of designated ugly fat friend. Not since America Ferrera was cast as Ugly Betty, has such an attractive young starlet been dressed in ill-fitting clothes and deemed to be not only fat and ugly, but completely devoid of social skills (oh, and of course the only asset is they are highly intelligent, because there’s a direct correlation between deformity and intellect).

Where are the real ugly fat people? The people whose self-esteem is left in tatters after twelve years of institutionalised education. The victims of school bullying who are haunted throughout their adult life by their childhood persecution. The people so fat their school uniform needs to be altered. The people whose stomach is continually spilling over their trouser bottoms. The person with a lazy eye. The people who have panic attacks talking to the opposite sex and never end up kissing anyone, let alone the school pin-up. The people who cry themselves to sleep. The person whose hair is full of split-ends. The people who come last in everything. The invisible people. Where are they? Why aren’t they the protagonists in these films?

If you want a film full of neat happy endings with a romanticised moral message about cyber-bullying then this is your film. It certainly has its moments and the highly predictable plot makes for good veg-out viewing, with a heart-felt message about being yourself. However, if you want the real fall-out of teenage years watch the documentary American Teen.

Kid #12 – When manual arts go mad

The twelfth kid I hated fashioned a piece of sheet metal into the shape of a penis and testicles; then placed it on my desk.

I’ve not taught metal work, because my background is in English teaching. However, the odd time when I’ve covered a manual arts class, I’ve been left to complete worksheets with the children, as I myself am presumably uninsured or unqualified to supervise such activities. This said, it would seem the child in question had been permitted enough time to operate heavy machinery unaided, and create this metallic piece of genitalia; or perhaps he had been aided and had managed to convince his metal-work teacher, he had created a silhouette of a banana and plums. The latter seems less likely.

And so it was that with ten minutes remaining of a lesson, I went to place my Macbeth play script on my desk and looked down to find the sausage and meatballs in question. Not being very good at disguising surprise, the students could tell straight away that I had clocked it. The giggling started straight away. What was I to do? The tin trouser snake was quite large. Too large to use as a bookmark. Even if I used a World Book encyclopaedia, the end of the junk would be sticking out making the book look like a shrunken pair of speedos on an Australia Prime Minister.

I did the only sensible thing left to any teacher in this situation. I raised the offending item above my head and asked the class who had placed it on my desk. No response. But then the usual threat of, “We will all be here in your own time until somebody owns up,” seemed to do the trick. Fingers began pointing across the room to a small blonde boy who had an inferiority complex.

This same child had been seen on occasion sitting diligently next to his mother in church on Sundays, carrying shopping to the family car and being a general pillar of the community. But his behaviour in school was the complete opposite and usually consisted of what can only be described as some sort of voluntary Tourette’s syndrome. At any given moment in class when the attention from his peers waned, out would come the expletives. These were closely followed by a knowing smirk, making quite clear this was not a medical condition.

While his mother may have been unaware of the double life he led, he of course realised that I was more than aware; so aware in fact that he confessed to his crime right away.

In hindsight, what happened next is regrettable. But also apt.

The class was on edge as to what would happen next, wondering how this act of defiance would be swiftly remedied. When there’s expectation of serious consequence; for what is mostly tomfoolery that overstepped the mark; it’s sometimes best to bring things down a notch, while still maintaining the upper hand.

I asked the boy to walk to the front of the room and handed him his cold hard manhood (metal manhood, that he had made in manual arts – let’s be clear on that). He then asked how long he had to stand at the front of the room showing his steel plated privates.

Now, less because I needed to teach him a lesson, but more because the lesson on Shakespeare’s Macbeth had run five minutes short that day, I responded by telling him to stay there until the bell rang for break.

It was a very long and awkward five minutes that ensued, but an important point was made; even if I did have to thwart his odd attempt to place the metal cut-out near his forehead – because of course that would be going too far.

When the bell rang, the class were dismissed, hopefully taking their shame with them, but not taking the metal penis with them.

The inevitable outcome for the hand carved gonads is long forgotten. Most likely they were handed back to the metal work teacher so a year seven or eight student could re-sculpt them into a candle holder for their aunty.

It’s conceivable that everyone, including myself, learnt something about anatomy, Elizabethan theatre and humiliation that day. Being marginally more experienced than I was back then, I would probably avoid the public shaming part and privately shame him in front of his mother. Hopefully he’s matured since then and is now a sensible construction worker using his metal work skills for good. This said, if we ever met while I was building a new home, I doubt I’d get him to do any welding for fear of a phallic flue being fixed to my fireplace,

Kid #9 – Fast food, moods and fones

The ninth kid I hated confused her father for a food delivery van. An easy mistake for any teenager whose mood would swing as easily as an arachnid hanging from a thread below an exhaust fan.

One minute she’d be the virtuous student, completing all her work, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, contributing to class discussions, helping to carry things and so forth. At other times you’d be lucky to get within ten metres of her without being hit by a spray of contumelious expletives. When she decided not to work, she would pout and erase her memory of anything academic. Often, her petulance would become so consuming, she’d be one step from regressing into a thumb-sucking ball of disgrace.

All of this changing between good and bad, was complimented by an ongoing truancy. The amount of sick days she was taking would put Ferris Bueller to shame. And where you may think it would be hard to hate someone who isn’t there, her absence made it all the more worse. The fear was ever present that at any moment she may return, revitalised from roaming the suburban streets of Perth with her goons for the past week. She would always arrive back with a stronger displeasure of the system, a bigger chip on her shoulder and, most importantly, armed with her mobile phone.

The phone would be my undoing.

Mobile phones are my kryptonite professionally and personally. During my second year of university I insisted on using the landline phones in the student newsroom for assignments. It was only after a solid three months playing phone-tag with the subjects of my soft news articles, I succumbed to the power of the portable handset. It was the early 2000’s. Flip phones were at their height of popularity. So, taking my ever pragmatic approach to phones, I unofficially adopted my parent’s Nokia 3210 as my own. (That little metallic red phone would serve me monochromatically for a further five years until it flew from my pocket onto the garden pathway as I jumped to retrieve one of my thongs from a roof gutter – but that’s another tale).

My point is, when it comes to phones, I hate mobile telephones second only to the soon-to-be-adult people who brandish them brazenly in classrooms around the globe. There have been stories of: teachers collecting phones in a bucket as students enter the room; the installing of devices that disable any network coverage within school premises; or, as one lecturer led me to believe, a school in South Africa collecting all the students phone numbers, forcing them to wear their phones on a lanyard, and then using an SMS notification system to text students homework and other general business, thus rendering the phones as fun as an Advanced Calculus textbook.

Unfortunately most teachers are not privy to such technological tricks – like buckets. Most dialogue with students is as follows:

Teacher – “Please put your phone away.”

Student – “But I’m messaging my mother.”

Teacher – “Please put the phone away.”

Student – “I’m doing it.”

Teacher – “Please put the phone away.”

Student – “I’m just finishing the message, otherwise my mother will worry.”

My naivety and own general incompetence with phones led me to believe until quite recently that this was the case. It was revealed to me by a parent, not many years apart from myself, that when teenagers say they are texting a parent, they are normally just messaging a friend in another classroom – or in a fit of lunacy, they are messaging a friend within the same classroom.

It had always seemed strange to me that parents would want direct contact with their child in the classroom, listening to the every whim and woe of their ungrateful offspring. Back in the day, you’d split your head open on a limestone paving stone and be lucky if a staff member had the foresight to send another student to the front office for the school secretary to flick through the lever arch of parent contacts and call home, only to have the phone ring out because your mother was down at Woolworths, and leave a message with your father’s secretary that he’d only receive in time for you to have bled out. They were the good old days, where a bit of miscommunication would go a long way.

Now students in the classroom have a hotline to home. In the case of the ninth kid I hated, she used this hotline as regular blackmail when she was having one of her hissy fits. A power play would unfold where she would act as though she’d get in her parents’ ears before the teacher would be able to give their version of events.

Now, while this would be the perfect situation to have known what I now know, about students bluffing who they were actually messaging, one incident stood out that made clear this girl really was messaging home when she said she was.

One lazy Thursday afternoon during English, ‘madam’ was kicking off as usual. It was still twenty minutes until lunch break, which probably explained part of the mood she was in. But then with one inconspicuous vibration of her pocket device, things really heated up. She pulled out the phone. She was asked politely to put it away. But she continued to read it.

“Sir, sir! My dad’s outside.”

“I can’t see him.”

“He’s in his car.”

“I’m sure if he needs to see you, he’ll do the old fashioned thing and let Ms Smith in the office know that he needs to see you.”

This placated her momentarily, until a few more messages were exchanged.

“He has my lunch sir.”

“It’s lunch time in twenty minutes, so you can have it then.”

“But its takeaway, and it’ll be cold by then.”

This was the point I looked out the window to see first hand the cause of this child’s social ineptitude.

Parked in the loading bay outside the school reception was a beaten up old car from the 80s with the driver’s door open and a man standing beside the car with holding two plastic carrier bags of steaming chicken and chips.

“Sir!” Her voice was becoming shrill. “If I don’t go now, my brother will take all the food and won’t give me anything.”

“I’m sure he’ll keep yours safe for you,” I responded, not entirely sure that her sixteen year old oaf of a sibling would be so generous.

Sure enough, I could now see her brother heading out to the car park, having no doubt given his own teacher some cock and bull story about going to the toilet. Unfortunately for the girl her honesty, and the classroom’s proximity to the car park, had not lent her the opportunity to bulldust me.

“I can see him getting both bags now,” she squealed.

“I can see him getting both the bags, now,” I muttered.

Turning back to the class, I demanded another two paragraphs from each student about the character development of Griff Price in the novel Two Weeks With The Queen; not before the remaining moments of Year Eight English were interrupted by screams of “There’ll be no chips left,” and “He’s going to eat all my chicken”.

When I finally dismissed the class, we entered the playground to find the older brother stuffing his face with the contents of both bags as the young girl had predicted. I approached him and requested he give the appropriate share of the food to his sister.

But in this confused new world of mobile telephonic machines, parental fast food delivery services and misogynistic older brothers; I couldn’t help but feel somewhat complicit in the dietary and emotional assault that had played out on this vulnerable young girl.

Perhaps if history repeated I’d confront the father directly, but if we met again in a major fast food burger chain I doubt I’d join them in a Japanese style ‘potato party’.